BRUSSELS, Belgium — Just blocks from Brussels' posh Avenue Louise, whose ritzy stores bustle with shoppers, 120 Afghan asylum seekers live in an abandoned building. Here, in the heart of socialized Europe, what Paul Krugman recently called “the most decent societies in human history,” families with children have no hot water, kitchens or bathrooms. They have no legal status, so they can’t work. They don't have identification papers, so they can’t check out books from the library. And they don't have money, meaning a simple walk can become a degrading experience, since almost all public restrooms require a few eurocents in Belgium.
As European Union leaders wring their hands over a fresh wave of asylum seekers spurred by the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, this group wishes they would consider the plight of those already stuck here.
“If I had known what my situation would be,” said 36-year-old Mahja, “I wouldn’t have come here. I would have preferred to accept death in my home country.”
Mahja, once a teacher in Afghanistan, said he was in fact marked for death in his hometown in Ghazni province, as an atheist living among the mostly Muslim Hazara minority. He won’t allow his real name to be used because his fear extends even to Brussels.
A room where one Afghan asylum seeker lives, in an abandoned building in Brussels.
Abbas and Nargis Ahmadi and their three children, along with Alawi Mohsen and his wife and young son, all express similar despondence. After selling everything they owned in Afghanistan, they paid smugglers to sneak them into Europe, where they hoped understanding of the desperate situation in their homeland would facilitate integration here.
All say they can’t go back to Afghanistan and believe fervently they qualify as “refugees” under the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, which protects those facing a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
If not that, then they believe they should receive what’s called “subsidiary protection” status, an additional category implemented by the European Union in 2006 for people who don’t quite qualify as refugees but can prove they need sanctuary. In the cases of these 120 Afghans, as well as thousands of others, Belgium doesn’t agree.
That leaves the families in a state of limbo.
European Union law requires applications for asylum to be made in the first country where migrants arrive or are apprehended. For many migrants, that country is Greece, because they sneak over the Turkish border. But Athens is so far below minimum international standards on treatment of migrants that Belgium was fined in January for sending an Afghan asylum seeker back there. There is now a moratorium on the return of migrants to Greece.
Belgium is therefore responsible for processing the asylum seekers’ applications and, if the request is rejected, for deporting them back to their countries of origin. However, Belgium doesn’t actually force people to go back to Afghanistan, given its state of conflict. So when Belgian authorities reject the application and asylum seekers won’t return to Afghanistan voluntarily, too many of them fall ― or willingly jump ― into cracks in the national system, having to survive any way they can.
Since the state’s obligation to provide asylum seekers food and shelter ends once their applications have been rejected, the migrants end up unable to work, unable to travel, and living in such difficult conditions as the families off of Avenue Louise.
The system “leaves people in the streets,” acknowledged Christophe Jansen, head of European and International Affairs at the office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGR), the autonomous agency tasked with making decisions on asylum applications in Belgium. But, he emphasized, “we ask them to return and in practice, they could return to their region of origin.” Last year, only 11 Afghans did go back voluntarily, according to Pascale Reyntjens of the International Office of Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental organization that facilitates such returns and transitions.
The decision on who can be repatriated and to where is based on counsel from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), which has deemed some parts of Afghanistan and Iraq inhabitable for returnees. Nonetheless, UNHCR has been calling on the EU to accept more applications from people fleeing generalized or indiscriminate violence such as is present throughout Afghanistan.
CGR counters that Belgium has in fact granted asylum to Afghans at a much higher rate than the overall applicant pool. Sixty percent of Afghans have been allowed to stay, according to CGR figures, compared to just over 21 percent of other nationalities.
Still, that figure means hundreds of people each year are “left in limbo that by any humanitarian and humane standards is unacceptable,” said Melita Sunjic, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Brussels. “They basically have no rights except the right to go live under a bridge.”
Mahja said some in his group have been told by asylum authorities that their claim that they would be in danger in Afghanistan is not credible, but when asking for help with repatriation have been blocked because UNHCR deems their home region too volatile.
Helene Crokart, one of the Afghan group’s lawyers, says she hopes a re-examination of their situation will lead to new interviews with CGR and the approval of their residency. After a brief hunger strike, authorities did offer some of the asylum seekers another chance to make their case. “We need to stay optimistic otherwise it’s not possible to work as a lawyer in human rights,” Crokart said. “And the situation of these persons is so absurd that I’m sure Belgium will finally recognize them as legal refugees.”
Meanwhile, Mahja said he would advise Tunisians and Libyans not to flee and avoid this legal no-man’s-land. “Stay and make the situation better in your home countries,” he said, wishing the same would have been possible for him in Afghanistan.
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